Jan Needle,
Sea Officer William Bentley #1: A Fine Boy for Killing
(HarperCollins, 1996; McBooks, 2000)

William Bentley is, by nature of his name in the title of this series, the central character of this book.

But in A Fine Boy for Killing, the first in a series by English writer Jan Needle, it's hard to imagine a more unlikable protagonist.

The 14-year-old midshipman on HMS Welfare is arrogant, cruel, mean-spirited and even a little cowardly. He is probably the most awful person on the ship, with the exception of his uncle, the black-hearted Captain Daniel Swift, who rules his crew with an iron fist, a heavy lash and a desperate fear of mutiny.

There aren't many people in this novel to like, actually, although you certainly feel sympathy for Thomas Fox, a young farm boy who is apparently sent to market with a flock of sheep and no idea of their value. Tricked into accepting the king's shilling by Bentley, he is bullied on board the Welfare to begin a miserable term of service in the British navy. Lacking strength, spirit, will or experience, Fox will not do well in the service.

Then there's Jesse Broad, an English smuggler whose only thought is getting home in time for his infant son's christening -- until he is waylaid, again by Bentley, and pressed into the Welfare's crew.

If you look for happy endings in your novels, this one isn't for you.

However, Needle tells a frighteningly realistic tale of the harsh nature of British naval service at a time when sailors were considered by some to be little more than beasts of burden, and a captain with the mind for it could treat them worse than cattle. The Welfare is not a happy ship, and you can feel the rage and despair building with every turn of the page. Needle's narrative is unflinchingly brutal.

It's a dark story. And yet, it's a story well told -- and it gives a voice to the many seamen who lived and suffered in these unbearable conditions. I just hope William Bentley proves a better man in the next book in this series.

book review by
Tom Knapp

29 March 2014

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